“What is this sauce?” Red Door owner — and our night’s host — Hien asks.
It’s orange — it reminds me of McDonald’s special sauce. But it’s not. It’s pungent in a herbal way, and it lingers longer on our tongues than the clean-tasting shrimp that encircles the top of the lotus salad heap.
“It’s lotus seed!” he says. “We use all the parts of the lotus: the seed, the stem, the root. Most places only use the stem.
“That’s why we call it ‘lotus-in-lotus’.”
The drunken tofu is our second appetiser. Soaked in sake and sprinkled with mixed fruits, it keeps us on our toes.
And Hien keeps elaborating on the philosophy behind the food. “The thing that interests me in Vietnamese food are the layers of taste. There’s a lot of fermentation — fish sauce is fermented, so is shrimp sauce. The whole idea is to keep you from getting bored.”
Jumping between tables, dropping insights and little jokes, Hien is an ideal dinner host. And in that way, he makes the idea exchange he wants to foster at Red Door come alive with every unexpected mouthful.
Food for Thought
Walking through the space with Hien, we see his ideas made manifest. Straw-centric sculptures — symbols of the past season — haunt the edges of the space. Screens are in various stages of printing. Do paper hangs from intermittent clips spiraling out from a light bulb, a kind of improvised chandelier. Blocks cover the structural pillar interrupting the terrace, completing the squared-off effect that the rest of the modernist space carries. That’s the effect he was looking for in the redesign of this, his childhood home.
The downstairs restaurant space was formerly his family’s living room, and the upstairs salon had been a bedroom. (When I ask what his parents thought of the renovations, Hien says, “They just said, ‘Oh.’”)
The salon now holds an upright piano, minimalist artworks and some modular seating for the talks the space is dedicated to. There’s already been an art talk as well as a talk on gender politics. Eventually Hien hopes to expand the concept, bringing in scientists, artists, whoever will heed his call.
For now, most of those who come are dinner guests, filling up the 20-odd seats in the downstairs room. On this night it’s not packed but intimate, the conversation flowing along with the mid-range bottles of wine.
The Main Course
Our first main is the grilled pork rib in Tay Ninh shrimp salt. The pork rib is fall-off-the-bone scrumptious, the coconut rice ball is delicious on its own. “We try to come up with different kinds of starch,” Hien says.
The meat keeps my textural interest — soft and charred, with the gamey, spicy Tay Ninh shrimp salt filling the grooves. I didn’t know about this shrimp salt variant, but evidently it’s famous.
“Tay Ninh has a little manmade lake,” Hien says, “and somehow they invented this famous shrimp salt. But they didn’t have shrimp, they actually had to import them. I think it should be a test case in marketing.”
The second main is a chicken clay pot with fermented sweet rice. Despite the fermented accompaniment, this is a light dish. “We wanted a light sweetness from the sweet rice to give it a subtle taste.” Subtle is a word Hien uses a lot.
For our dessert, we choose a light option — flan with wild sweet rice fermented in rice wine. It’s interesting and good. Each bite is fronted by a rice wine kick, which is smoothly overtaken by the calm sweetness of the flan. It keeps our attention.
And then, as we get into a discussion on the origins of pho, our eyes settle past the glassed-off wall on the courtyard beyond. Water trickles down a slanted wall into the greenery beneath, around the frangipani tree that’s grown here ever since Hien was a child. And just to the right of this calm scene, a patterned mannequin torso swings like a pendulum in the wind, as good a symbol for Red Door’s twist on the traditional as any. — Ed Weinberg
Red Door is at 400/8 Le Van Sy, Q3, HCMC. It’s a call-ahead type of place — 01218 805905. Check facebook.com/reddoorrestaurant for more